Do You Need a License to Operate your Christmas Gift?

Two weeks before Christmas, half the population is in a panic to find the perfect gift. Drones, those unmanned flying objects long used by the military but increasingly used by photographers and civilian flight enthusiasts, might come to mind. They are interesting toys for some and tools of the trade for others, depending on how they are used and who is using them.

A roofing contractor can use a drone mounted camera to take photos of a damaged roof without having to get a ladder out. I use mine to take aerial photos of accident sites for my legal cases. Others buy them just for entertainment, because they like to fly remote controlled aircraft. The word "aircraft" might tip off where I'm going with this.

Are drones truly aircraft in the sense that their operators have to be licensed by the FAA? In 2012, Congress exempted drone hobbyists from regulation. Commercial operators like photographers working for hire, the roofing contractor I mentioned a moment ago, and I are not exempted when we use our drones for work. It didn't seem to register in the minds of the people we elected to Congress that a drone can be flown by a person using it as a toy into the side of a building, over a crowded football stadium, or into somebody's skull just as fast as a commercial user can.

Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board declared that drones are indeed aircraft. That being the case, it is likely that the FAA will be provoked into regulating recreational drone flights in addition to the already regulated flights for commercial purposes. It's even possible that the FAA will require drone operators to fly their equipment under the same rules that exist for airplane pilots.

So before buying a drone for someone in your family, you might want to consider how burdensome those regulations could be. For example, airplane pilots have to be trained, tested, and subsequently retrained every two years, and their aircraft have to be registered and inspected annually. I'm lucky to be an airplane pilot anyway, so regulations like this wouldn't pose a problem, but for most people, they would be very burdensome, enough to make almost anyone adopt the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, "Bah, humbug!"

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